Why Is Prince Getting Back Into Bed With Warner Brothers?

Hell must be freezing over, and the sun will probably rise in the west tomorrow, because this morning brought news of the single most unlikely thing in the world (or the music industry, at least): Prince has re-signed with Warner Bros. I say “re-signed” because, remember, Warner is the same company that so infuriated His Purpleness in the 1990s that he took to scrawling “SLAVE” on his face when he appeared in public, and pioneered the legally adventurous move of changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol in an attempt to extricate himself from his record contract. This fact seems to have been largely overlooked by everyone reporting the news of his new deal this morning. Clearly, Prince’s ways are inscrutable at best, but seriously, what’s going on here?

The obvious answer is “money,” but we’re talking about a man who has sold over 100 million records in his time — he’s hardly short of a dime, in other words, and remember, this is a company he was prepared to furnish with deliberately obtuse and/or hurried material like Come and Chaos and Disorder in order to complete his contractual obligations as quickly as possible. Those records sold poorly, and Prince seemed to care not a whit. It seems unlikely that any amount of cash alone would lure him back to Warner’s embrace.

No, I suspect that if anything, the answer lies in the fact that the news of his new deal comes with the announcement of a fancy 30th-anniversary digital remaster of Purple Rain, along with “long-awaited, previously unheard music.” Warner presumably still owns the masters and publishing rights of all the music he released with the company, which includes everything from 1978 to 1996. The press release about the new deal make sure to mention that it “[gives] the artist ownership of the master recordings of his classic, global hits.”

Prince is a notorious perfectionist, so the idea of his masters sitting in Warner’s vault, a place where he couldn’t get at them, has probably been eating at him for the last 20 years. (As far back as 1999, he was threatening to re-record new, “better” versions of his entire back catalog after his bid to claim ownership of the masters failed.) He’s also a man given to releasing pretty much anything and everything he’s recorded — his original beef with Warner was that it wouldn’t let him release albums as quickly as he wanted to.

The fact that there’s a bunch of unreleased material to which Warner has the rights is presumably the other sweetener in this deal: the press release claims enthusiastically that “for Prince fans worldwide, the new partnership will open a veritable gold mine.” Warner is no doubt betting that this unreleased material will be a financial goldmine as well as an artistic one, given that none of the records Prince has released since Diamonds and Pearls in 1991 has sold anywhere near the numbers that he did at his peak. A bunch of deluxe anniversary editions and fancy box sets for completists, though? It should be a license to print money. Expect a whole bunch of “definitive” Prince compilations soon.